EU Policy towards Belarus: Is There Need for Change?

On 18 February, the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) organised a round table on EU-Belarus relations in Minsk that brought
together representatives of Belarusian expert community, civil society, and human rights organisations. The discussion focused on the
impact the EU sanctions towards Belarusian officials has on these relations. In addition, the round-table participants discussed possible
strategies of interaction between Brussels and Minsk.

Some participants of the event believe that the EU and the US should concentrate on supporting Belarusian society as a whole, rather than some individual groups within it. With time, this approach could create a basis for change in the country, including political change. Such strategy would be relevant, they believe, due to the absence in Belarus of a considerable political alternative on which could bring change and political transformation about.

The participants of the round-table agreed that the mechanism through which EU visa sanctions are imposed (such as adding new names of Belarusian officials to whom restrictions can apply) is lacking transparency and clearly defined criteria.
More information in Russian is available

The Office for a Democratic Belarus has approached some international and Belarusian experts posing the following questions and asking for comments on the existing EU-Policy towards Belarus:

1. Do you think that current EU policy towards Belarus is effective? Is there a need for change? If so, what steps would you recommend?
2. Given that the European Union is not considering the introduction of fully-fledged economic sanctions against Belarus, with the intention of applying pressure on the authorities, do you think the EU should continue to extend the visa ban list and introduce targeted economic sanctions against some Belarusian companies? What real effect will such a policy have on the situation in Belarus?

Dzianis Melyantsou, Senior researcher with BISS I consider the current EU policy towards Belarus ineffective, mainly because it is nonexistent. The EU still has not worked out a concise and coherent strategy towards Belarus. It prefers reacting to actions of officials in Minsk, and does not offer consistent programmes that aim to achieve set goals.

Although the EU sets a general goal - promoting democratisation and liberalisation of Belarus - its actions in this direction are inconsistent and chaotic.

The most important change needed is to work out a strategy of cooperation with the Belarusian government and with Belarusian society. The escalation of the conflict expressed through the deepening of isolation and the widening of sanctions needs to be interrupted. To assist transformation in Belarus, Brussels needs to think about making a solid investment in Belarus that would be attractive to the Belarusian elite and to citizens. There is a need to create a positive image of the EU in the eyes of Belarusian society. The easiest and
most effective way to achieve this goal would be to cancel Schengen visas for Belarusians.

2. No. An extension of visa ban list would only deepen the alienation between the Belarusian government and Brussels, which in turn would encourage further strengthening of the dependency of Belarus on Russia. While Minsk is not making concessions and fully-fledged EU sanctions are not possible, a good message to Belarusian officials would be an alteration of the “black list” (excluding people who did not directly take part in repressions and who were not proven guilty) and the formulation of concise and coherent criteria for creating the visa ban list.

The effect of such a policy could be the termination of the escalation of the conflict and a gradual return to a course of normalisation of political relations. On the one hand, the alteration of the visa ban list would facilitate understanding by officials of their personal  responsibility for their actions (one can be added to the list for specific actions, and can be excluded from the list if one does not take part in repressions). On the other hand, it would be a message to the country's government that the EU is prepared to exit from conflict and is waiting for actions from Minsk in response.

Giselle Bosse, Assistant Professor at the Political Science Department at Maastricht University EU's Belarus policy has certainly matured over the past decades, there has been more differentiation among the regions and countries which were part of the former Soviet Union, especially with the Neighbourhood Policy and the Eastern Partnership (EaP). The EU now has more staff working on Belarus and there is generally more interest in Belarus now compared to the late 90s and early 2000s.
Although the goal of the EU's Belarus policy has always been the democratisation of the country, the instruments deemed appropriate for
achieving this goal have kept changing. The most visible change occurred with the launch of the EaP, which marked the peak of the EU's policy of 'pragmatic engagement' with Lukashenka.

The EU's return, after the 2010 presidential elections, to a policy of isolation of the regime and targeted sanctions is yet another U-turn in the policy. In the short term, the EU's policy of pragmatic engagement proved ineffective in the sense that it did not lead to a fairer presidential election in 2010, but that was perhaps an unrealistic goal. We can, however, say very little about the long-term effectiveness of the policy of engagement because it lasted less than two years.

The recent EU policy of 'critical engagement’, which, in the words of EU officials is now more 'critical than engagement', has been applied for less than one year, and again it is too early to judge its impact. If the EU was to change its policy towards the Lukashenka government yet again, it would certainly run the risk of losing credibility. Whether one regards 'critical engagement' as the more effective approach or not, an EU that is changing its policies on an annual basis is likely to constitute the least effective option.

Another pillar of the EU's policy is the support for civil society. Here the EU has had severe difficulties in the past, because its financial assistance instruments were difficult to apply in a context in which NGOs often lack registration. There has also been a tendency among the EU's bureaucracy to favour the allocation of funding to large (EU based) organisations or foundations to implement the assistance for Belarusian civil society. Too few efforts have been taken to 'spread' EU assistance among the grassroots of a wider strata of Belarusian civil society, and particular its young people.

Whether this will change following the introduction of the European Endowment for Democracy remains an open question, especially since the allocation of funding through the new mechanism is likely to be secretive.

2. It should not be forgotten that the European Commission in 2006 recommended that trade preferences to Belarus under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) be withdrawn, and the withdrawal has been in force since June 2007. Belarus is also subject to one of the tightest bilateral textile trade regimes amongst EU trade partners.

Nevertheless, EU-Belarus bilateral trade in goods has been growing steadily in the last five years and the EU is Belarus' second main trade partner with almost one third share in its overall trade (after Russia with almost one half).
According to the Belarusian government the total trade turnover between the EU and Belarus in 2011 increased by 76% compared to 2010.
Against this background, sanctions like the visa-ban or targeted economic sanctions will most likely not make a significant impact, especially since several EU member states have made it clear that they oppose any further economic sanctions. However, these measures have above all a symbolic function which may very well have some impact. The Belarusian government is very keen on attracting more European foreign direct investment, but the image of the country as the 'last dictatorship in Europe' means that investors
still perceive Belarus as a frontier market, despite the country receiving higher ratings for its investment climate in international ratings than Russia or Ukraine, for example.

At the same time, the broader the EU sets the criteria for its targeted sanctions, and the more individuals end up on the EU's visa-black list, the more important will it become for the EU to keep an overview of who is on the list, and why.
The EU has no proper mechanism in place to enforce sanctions or to monitor their implementation or impact. In other words, the more sanctions are imposed, the more difficult will it be to apply them consistently and to oversee their enforcement (see for example the cases of the journalist Aliaksei Mikhalchanka or the Minister of Internal Affairs Anatol Kuliashou who were issued visas to enter the EU despite being on the visa black-list).

The effectiveness of sanctions is highly contested in international relations and also in the EU. The Arab Revolutions, to name but one example, did not occur because of sanctions imposed by the international community.

A number of EU officials do believe that 'real change' can only come from within Belarus, but there are also many who believe that change in Belarus can be triggered or at least supported from the outside. The judgment on the effectiveness of the EU's current sanctions also very much depends on which of these two views one chooses to adopt. In all the discussion about the instruments or short term aims of EU policy, one should, however, not forget that its broader goals have by and large remained the same.

Anais Marin, Researcher with the Finnish Institute for International Relations (The EU's Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia research
programme) (Helsinki)) When questioning the efficiency of sanctions, one should first ask what the EU’s coercive diplomacy towards Belarus is aiming at. Overall goals remain unclear: Brussels may have a policy stance, member states agreed on minimal “restrictive measures”, but the EU obviously lacks a strategy. Yet sanctions could not openly aim at toppling Lukashenka or imposing regime change for the sake of fulfilling Mr Füle’s vision of a European future for Belarus, not least as not all member states share it. Contrary to many other authoritarian countries, in Belarus there is no civil war, genocide or crime against humanity justifying outside intervention on humanitarian grounds. Such interference would not be legitimate.

Therefore, EU sanctions officially pursue only one goal: improving the situation with human rights and the rule of law in Belarus, with the first priority being the unconditional release and rehabilitation of political prisoners. Sanctions obviously failed to meet this objective so far – in my opinion because, given the regime’s own survival strategies, the sanctions amounted to too little, too late… and were all too often bypassed by EU member states themselves.

Change is thus needed. The EU in its own ranks should seek to reach a consensus on a more ambitious policy, and implement it more coherently.

There is no room for idealism in relations with Minsk: dictatorships do not democratise, they only feign to, in order to prolong their own longevity. This is why I do not believe that the prospect of a normalisation of relations will ever push Lukashenka to voluntarily and genuinely democratise. Easing sanctions before the West’s requests for an unconditional release are fulfilled would amount to trading political prisoners. Political prisoners are against such compromising, which would be not only amoral, but vain and counterproductive. Such a step would show Lukashenka (as well as other dictators around the world) that the EU could give up on its principles. This would further undermine the EU’s reputation as a values-based global actor. If democracies refuse to deal with terrorists and hostage-takers, then they should not deal with Minsk either. Refusing to play Lukashenka’s game means, for example, refraining from sending observers to monitor the predictably undemocratic elections he will stage next September.

2. We all know that Lukashenka is indifferent to naming and blaming – he even gets along fine with being ignored by the West. Hence the need to target his proxies, acolytes and other “bagmen”, who are liable to feel the pressure more than he does, and could see a pragmatic advantage in complying. However, currently the EU is not offering them attractive enough rewards, especially in comparison to Russian ones.

In the ongoing debate regarding the visa ban list, I agree that the EU should take off the names of people who died, repented or quit their jobs – if any. This would indeed signal that the EU keeps a close eye on developments in Belarus, and might encourage defections. Conversely, in the absence of real improvements, and given that some political prisoners are on the threshold of death, the EU should keep on adding onto the visa ban list the names of the latest human rights offenders.

I belong to those who consider that sanctions have not been efficient enough, or, not efficient yet, and that this should prompt the EU to design a “smarter”, more innovative and comprehensive policy on Belarus. Flexibility is needed, but it should definitely not result in lifting sanctions against millionaires who have been supplying hard currency to Lukashenka’s slush funds for years.

If the goal pursued, besides the liberation of prisoners, is democratisation through regime change, then the retaliatory force of sanctions should on the contrary be increased. A targeted boycott of Belarusian goods could help meet this goal, even if at a cost: the EU would have to compensate for the losses in EU countries that depend on imports from Belarus. Generosity should also be shown towards Belarusians themselves – the most awaited step in this regard being to unilaterally waive Schengen visa fees for all bona fide travellers.

I advocated elsewhere a paradigm shift whereby the EU would open a “third track”, that of a real partnership with Belarus as a country. This is why I do not support some European Parliamentarians’ attempt to take the organisation of the 2014 Ice Hockey World Championships away from Belarus. People should on the contrary be entitled to enjoy the party, take Lukashenka to his word and request for attending visa free. Meanwhile Western leaders should be consistent and snub the event altogether, so that they do not have to shake blood-stained hands.

In other words, I think the EU should toughen its position along the first track (sanctions) and step up its efforts towards civil society (the second track). Yet, there should be room for positive engagement with all those in Belarus, including “red directors” and middle-class bureaucrats, who would prefer to work by EU standards out of respect for the rule of law – a value more widely shared within Belarusian society than “democracy” proper. This supposes identifying civil servants who do not trust Lukashenka anymore, and empowering them to step in as forces of proposals able of catalysing change at home.

Of course, extending a hand to Belarus as a country, without shaking the hand of its current leaders, requires conjuring up policy solution that the EU has yet to achieve. The mission will remain impossible anyway unless a special representative for relations with Belarus is appointed, someone with enough knowledge of the country to talk to Belarusians, and enough authority (and legal leverage) within the EU to coordinate policies along the three tracks in order to reach the goal – whatever that goal may be.

Given that the European Union is not considering the introduction of fully-fledged economic sanctions against Belarus, with the intention of applying pressure on the authorities, do you think the EU should continue to extend the visa ban list and introduce targeted economic sanctions against some Belarusian companies?

Given that there is no consensus in favour of full-fledged economic sanctions, the EU has few other options than stepping up its “targeted” sanctions policy. Key to making them efficient is that EU member states show irreproachable probity at the implementation stage. This means that if a country has to grant a visa  to a banned official upon request of an international organisation located on its territory (as France did for Interior Minister Anatol Kuliashou to attend an Interpol meeting last January), then it should seize the opportunity of this visit to take this official to a criminal court.

Judicial pressure against crony businessmen handling Belarusian assets in the EU should also be increased, as is now the case in Austria – but much remains to be done.

As for targeted economic sanctions, I am less convinced of their efficiency for helping set political prisoners free. Yet, provided that they are smart enough, they can contribute to suffocating the regime: if this is their ultimate goal, then EU countries should state it clearly and convince Belarusians that reaching it would make their lives better. This implies mobilising their support for such a policy, so that they come out to the streets and demand that the regime surrenders to outside pressures. “Smart” economic sanctions in that sense would be those that can close down enough companies simultaneously so as to provoke a general strike in Belarus. I don’t see any other way for pushing the regime to the negotiation table with the pro-reform segments of the Belarusian population. Although this should be the preliminary step for a normalisation of relations with the EU.

A more realistic way of “targeting” economic sanctions better is making sure that they are coherently implemented, meaning that EU-based individuals, banks and companies conducting business with counterparts affiliated with Lukashenka’s regime should also be sanctioned! Another condition for success would be that the EU motivates, or constrains – as do the US through their Democracy Acts – third countries to comply with its sanctions policy, taking on board Turkey, Monaco, San Marino or Eastern Partnership countries for example.

David Marples, Director, Distinguished University Professor, Department of History & Classics, University of Alberta I think it is about as effective as it can be given the current preoccupation of the EU with the economic crisis and sharp differences of opinion among the membership regarding the correct policies to be adopted. I hope that the economic situation will gradually stabilise, in which case I would offer the following comments. The EU is not going to bring about regime change or democratisation in Belarus. It can encourage it by financing NGOs and the like, and it could take more decisive action by easing or lifting the Schengen visa payment required for Belarusian citizens (especially students). However, the difficulties of trying to do more than that through the Eastern Partnership were illustrated clearly at the Warsaw summit, when other EP members refused to sign a statement censuring Belarus. It might be easier and more beneficial to deal with neighbour countries bilaterally, as has been the case with Ukraine recently.

The nature of the Lukashenka regime should be familiar to all EU members, as well as the impracticality of trying to make deals with it on political prisoners, democratisation, or free elections. It is incomprehensible why EU members can condemn a regime like Qaddaffi’s in Libya wholesale (even to the point of dropping bombs on Tripoli and helping to remove him from power), but still hold out hopes (in some quarters) of a dialogue with the authorities in Minsk. There is nothing to discuss. This engagement policy has failed repeatedly since 1999 and the regime has exploited olive branches from Europe and elsewhere with consistency and aplomb. Belarus does not have alternative centres of power, like Ukraine did in 2002-03 before the Orange Revolution. Differences between different sectors of the security
services or the KGB are to some extent encouraged by the President, but they do not denote a potential weakness within the ruling structure. The latter is carefully controlled and harnessed. So I do not agree with the notion that one can make deals with people or factions in the government.

Instead, the EU should continue to encourage the opposition to continue its attempts at unity. There have been many disparaging remarks made about the opposition, and some of them are justified, but the fact remains that after almost 18 years of Lukashenka, recent repressions and arrests, and a constant barrage of attacks in the official media, the opposition is still capable of acquiring about 20-25% of the popular vote it got back in 1994—even higher in Minsk. Most residents in Belarus probably fall politically into the social democratic camp. In general they favour some state intervention in public life as well as some form of security net. They would not support
wholesale privatisation, for example. But they would support viable economic reforms, particularly now that the economy is suffering and the regime is incapable of offering a realistic solution. Lamentably of the 2010 presidential candidates, only one recognised the need for an alternative economic plan, and he was the least effective in some other areas and has long since been compromised.

Moreover, Lukashenka in particular has exploited the quasi-myth of the failure of the short-term economic reforms of 1991-93 and the impoverishment that resulted. The advancement of a social contract and state-run economy appeared as a result to be a welcome alternative to many. But in 2012, I believe that bubble has burst, and most residents of Belarus would welcome a new, more far-sighted programme that could bring about reforms without completely eliminating the state role. It doesn’t have to be shock therapy. This
economic strategy, in my view, should take priority over all things and it is something on which the EU could work during its frequent engagements with opposition leaders. A clearly delineated economic programme that could be adopted by a unified opposition movement is the best hope for change in Belarus. Meanwhile, the EU should continue to treat Belarus as an important trading partner and open borders to those not on the travel ban list. That way it can be perceived as an alternative partner offering different solutions to
Belarus’ economic dilemmas. Russia doesn’t have any and appears to seek only to exploit those problems.
2. I think the partial economic sanctions do not make much sense. They have had no appreciable impact on EU-Belarus trade over the past year. Full fledged sanctions would be a more logical alternative but would require cooperation with Moscow to be effective. At present this seems far-fetched as an option because Russia perceives Belarus as part of its long-term plans for economic integration. The visa ban list on the other hand is important on symbolic grounds, to express strong disapproval of internal persecution and
repressions. There is no doubt that the families of political prisoners appreciate it and those on the list resent it deeply, even though some manage to circumvent it. That is not the key matter. Essentially, the visa ban, for all its idiosyncrasies (duplication of names, inclusion of deceased people, etc) is a sign that the Europeans are not ignoring the plight of those arrested since 19 December 2012 and that they are deeply concerned about the plight of political prisoners, many of which have been tortured systematically since the time of their arrest. For that reason alone, I think the visa ban list is worthwhile and I have no problem with it being expanded. I am also in favour of including
people who have carried out brutal actions in the past, including after the 2006 elections.

 Alexander Adamyants, Director of the Belarusian Centre for European Studies (Minsk) There is no simple answer to this question, because first we need to define what an effect is, and then we need to know accurately whether this effect is at all achievable under current conditions. If we understand the effect as political liberalisation and democratic reforms, then the visa sanctions policy should be considered ineffective. However, if we are talking about the extent of repressions in the country, then the visa sanctions have an undeniable impact. If we compare the local situation with that of many other countries with authoritarian regimes, like those in Central Asia, we see that Belarus is in a much better state regarding the scale of repressions against regime's political opponents and the civil society. Belarus has far fewer political prisoners, and at times the EU has even achieved the release of all political prisoners. In addition, the Belarusian regime's methods for suppressing the protests are far less cruel (for instance, there have been no cases of the use of firearms at demonstrations and street protests so far).

This does not mean, of course, that the EU's policy cannot be made more efficient. For instance, the EU could find more effective ways to support civil society, could be more flexible, competent and goal-oriented.

2. The question is not about whether to expand the list or not. The sanctions are not a goal in themselves; they are a tool, a way for the EU to unambiguously show its condemnation for the actions of the Belarusian authorities who deprive their citizens of civil and political liberties. By using symbolic sanctions, the EU clearly and explicitly states its opinion that would otherwise have remained unnoticed by the Belarusian ruling elite. The expansion of the sanctions happens and should happen proportionally to the actions that violate the rights and liberties of the people.

This policy has the effect of making the Belarusian authorities understand the demands of the EU. The governing class knows what it has to do, and what it has to stop doing, if it wants to improve relations with Europe. It is also very important to understand that the effectiveness of sanctions on Belarus depends not so much on the policy of the EU, nor on the existence or lack of sanctions, but on how deeply the group of people that runs Belarus is interested in improving the relations with the EU. This interest is a function of the state of country's relations with Russia: the worse the relations with Russia are, the more Belarus is willing to start looking for compromise with Europe.
However, if the EU unilaterally and unconditionally suspends its sanctions, Belarusian leaders will consider it political weakness, which would mean the loss of their last lever to influence the Belarusian regime.